Tensions are running high in the Angolan capital of Luanda after 17 Angolan activists were sentenced to prison in what many are calling a “show trial”. Many Angolans are already fed up with the government’s failure to manage the multiple crises shaking the country. Our sources on the ground say that activists are planning large-scale protests of the verdict… and that the authoritarian government seems worried.

The Angolan government says these young people were “conspiring to rebel” against the government of Angolan President José Eduardo Dos Santos, who has been the country’s dictator for almost four decades.

But, after the sentences were read out, Francisco Mapanda “Dago”— an attendee at the hearing—stood up and shouted “This judgment is a joke!” He was immediately arrested.

The feeling is widespread amongst activists and human rights groups, who say that the only thing that the young activists are guilty of is reading about democracy. The 17 activists— one of whom, Luaty Beirao worked with the Observers frequently in the past—were arrested in June 2015 when they were caught or suspected of reading Gene Sharp’s book about non-violent resistance to dictatorship. Originally, they were charged with planning a coup, but after a long period of incarceration and a trial that has dragged on for months, they were found guilty of “preparation for rebellion” and “criminal association” and sentenced to two to eight years in prison on Monday.

Our Observer, Luaty Beirao, is seen here on the last day of the trial. (Photo: Rodrigue Bemvido)

Amnesty International said the trial was carried out in an unfair manner after independent observers were banned from attending and called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of the activists. Other Angolan activists, including respected journalist and Observer Rafael Morais de Marques, reported that “the trial has been marked by an absence of concrete evidence, failure to follow due process and the acceptance of hearsay and fiction as ‘proof’ of conspiracy.”

Human rights activists are especially worried about the health of Nuno Dala, who has been severely weakened from a hunger strike. He was given a sentence of four and a half years.

“The city feels quite tense”

Alexandre Solombe is the chairman of the Media Institute for Southern Africa. He said that many people across Luanda have been reacting to Monday’s verdict.

This sentencing has made many people very, very angry. Already, Angolans do not believe in the impartiality of the justice system. Lots of people are posting about it on Facebook and Twitter, using the hashtags #Angola15 +2 and #LiberdadeJa.

The thing is, this trial has taken place during a crisis in Angola. Every day people are facing a hugely inflated cost of living and inflation. The banking system is not working properly and the government is struggling financially, leading it to cut important services like trash collection. There are epidemics of yellow fever and malaria sweeping the country. So the decision from the court is inflaming an already dissatisfied population.

The area around the statue of Agostinho Neto in central Luanda—a place where protests have happened in the past— was closed off on Wednesday. (Photo by Observer Alexandre Solombe)

The city feels tense. On Tuesday, there were numbers of security forces out, especially in Luanda’s Independence Square [Editor’s note: This was confirmed by other sources who went there early on Tuesday]. Today, police had cordoned off an area around Agostinho Neto’s statue, a place where people have gathered to protest in the past, which supports my theory that they are worried about protests. There certainly will be protests but, for the time being, we don’t know where or when.

Our sources on the ground also confirmed that protests were being planned. Angolan authorities have a history of violent clampdowns on protests, including one in 1977 when thousands of members of the opposition were thought to have been killed by security forces. The activists recently sentenced had been organising peaceful protests against the government since 2011. As we reported in 2014 with the help of activist Luaty Beirao, Angolan security forces often violently shut down the protests after only a few minutes. Some of the activists were arrested and tortured.

These people gathered at Sagrada Familia in Luanda for a vigil for the activists. (Photo from Observer Rodrigues Bemvindo)

On Monday, people organised a vigil for the activists on trial in a church in Luanda. Almost 100 people came, but it was a sombre, quiet affair. There has also been a lot of international attention for this case. In Lisbon, Portugal, there were protests.

This protest was organized in Lisbon in support of the activists. (photo: Mariana Abreu)

People gather in Portugal in support of the jailed activists. (photo: sent by our Observer Rodrigue Bemvindo)

One thing that I think is interesting. After months of waiting [The trial began on November 16], the judge delivered a verdict that day before an important football match between Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This isn’t the first time that a controversial decision has been made right before a football match. The same thing occurred when they voted in controversial changes to the constitution in 2010. I think the government wanted to use it as a distraction!